Harbourmaster King was accustomed to dealing with problems. His entire job was dealing with them, juggling them, alleviating them, occasionally even solving them once in a blue moon. It was a job that required dedication, focus and the ability to find satisfaction in the little things.
Most importantly, it required the ability to let things go. You could not dwell, lest you became trapped in the endless circular logic of ‘what I should have done’. King had gotten good at that last part, long years of practice leaving it almost second nature to him.
And yet, today he found himself lacking in this regard. He just could not focus, letting himself get distracted as he dwelt on the one nagging question.
Why had he let the Pacific go?
He’d known something was wrong the second Kay had stepped into his office. The girl had never been one to hide her emotions well and she’d clearly been lying about something when she’d registered her route. It had all been valid of course, King wouldn’t have accepted it otherwise, but still, he’d known something was off. He could have stopped her, invented some reason or another, or hell, just done the unthinkable and asked her directly.
But he hadn’t. Instead he had let her go and that choice had haunted him all day.
Putting down his pen, King sat back in his chair and rubbed at his eyes. It was getting late, very nearly time for him to close the office for the day. All the other ships were either already back or at least checked in. Only the Pacific was unaccounted for. That alone was worrying, especially as he suspected rescue crews would be less than useless.
Why had he let the Pacific go?
King was pulled back to the moment by a beep from his desk phone. Shaking himself awake, he leaned forward and answered the call, consciously affecting his neutral, professional tone. He still had an image to maintain.
“Boss! Boss they’re back!”
King had flinched away from Control’s shrill tone. He was excited about something, more so than usual.
“Who is back, Control?”
“Who else would I be calling you about!? It’s Kay and Oscar!”
Surprising even himself, King was speechless for several long seconds.
“Boss? Boss you still there?”
“Yes, I’m here Control. Have you let them in?”
“They’re just pulling up now.”
King hung up before Control could say anything else. Calmly, the harbourmaster closed the ledger he’d been writing in and carefully stowed his pens back in their holder. Then he rose from his desk and left his office, resisting the urge to sprint as he headed for the docks.
A strange quiet hung in the air as King arrived at the Pacific’s berth. Not silence, for he could hear the distant clangs and shouts of dredgers at work but it was strangely muted. As if the docks themselves were waiting, holding their breath in anticipation of what would happen next. Or perhaps King was simply imagining things.
He arrived at the Pacific’s berth just as the gate klaxon sounded from nearby. King stood well back as the gate opened, watching as a crane began to lower its claw through the opening towards the Sea below. King had to consciously unclench his jaw was he waited; the tension only made worse from knowing there was nothing he could do to speed this up. He just had to be patient.
He still couldn’t relax when the cable went taunt and began to haul in its catch up from the Sea. Less than a minute passed, feeling like hours as King’s eyes bore a hole in the space where the Pacific would come into view. Somehow, it still managed to sneak up on him, leaving King only able to gape at the sight.
In the broad strokes, it was the same ship that had left port this morning. Same four legs, same bulging frame, same patchwork hull cobbled together out of whatever metal had been lying around. To a casual observer, it might have passed beneath notice.
But King did notice. He’d dealt with the old girl enough over the years that the differences were glaringly obvious. The hull was the wrong colour, the materials making up its patchwork surface different from what he remembered. The profile was wrong too, close but something in the shape of the pilothouse was off. Even the legs looked different somehow. Something in the joints, each of them unlike one another, as if they had all come from a different model of ship.
But perhaps the most notable change was that the Pacific felt, of all things, sound. She certainly wasn’t new by any stretch of the imagination but neither did she feel liable to fall apart in a stiff breeze. Somehow that, more than anything, left King utterly baffled.
As the Pacific settled into her berth, King found himself strangely unwilling to approach. Nothing moved upon the deck, the place as still and seemingly dead as a bone filled tomb. It was foolish to fear such a thing and yet still he stood rooted to the spot, waiting for some sign of life from the strange ship.
The sudden cry drew King to the pilothouse, just in time to see Kay stumble out. She rubbed her knee in obvious pain, preventing her from noticing King for several seconds. When she finally did notice him, they both simply stared at one another with equally questioning looks.
“Kay,” King said.
“…your majesty,” Kay replied.
For once, King let her impishness go unacknowledged.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
Kay waved her hand, “Just whacked my shin on something, nothing big.”
King nodded sagely, then gestured around at the ship in general.
“I can’t help but notice this isn’t the same ship you left in.”
Kay made a show of looking around. “Really? What makes you say that?”
He shot her a look, Kay meeting it with a smile that told him everything he needed to know.
“We had some mechanical troubles.”
King refused to break the gaze, struggling to pick out just what he was seeing on her face. Her smile was churlish to be sure, but for once it wasn’t a cover.
For the first time in a long time, Kay looked genuinely happy.
“Well then,” King said. “You’ll be needing an advance on your haul I assume?”
Kay’s smile somehow widened even further, becoming a grin that stretched for miles.
“Funny you should mention that.”
“So, we’re really not going to tell anyone?”
Kay looked up from the plate of food she was assembling, smiling at Oscar where he stood at the stove.
“Tell anyone what?”
“Don’t be cute, I’m being serious.”
Kay shrugged, taking another portion of rice. “We told King, didn’t we?”
“Yeah and he made it very clear how many other people he’s going to tell.”
She chuckled at the memory. King of course had been less than convinced by Kay’s quips and dragged them both off to his office to explain.
They had told him everything, from the boring to the plausible to the outright fantastical. Laid out from end to end, even Kay had to admit it sounded insane. Even having seen it with her own two eyes, it was difficult to make the phrase “animate piles of haunted trash” sound anything less than ludicrous.
King had listened to it all without comment. Even when they had finished King said nothing, his face betraying not a hint of what he was thinking. Instead he had turned to the piles of paper surrounding his desk, extracting from there one of his many ledgers.
He’d begun flipping through it, revealing on the pages printed forms filled out with his own neat handwriting. Opposite each of these was a reproduction of the same grid map hanging on the wall behind King’s desk. Route plans Kay surmised, records of where each ship had gone on any given day.
Eventually King had found the page he’d been looking for and turned the book towards the two of them. It was a new entry, both form and map sitting completely blank.
“This is where you were today, right?” King had asked.
He pointed to a spot on the map, one that could not be further away from where they had been. Wordlessly, Kay and Oscar had confirmed the statement. Just as wordlessly, King had nodded and quickly filled in the pages. Then he had casually flipped back several entries and ripped out two pages, throwing both in the trash.
No further discussion was had on the matter.
“Do we need to tell anyone else?” Kay asked, grabbing two beers out of the fridge. “I mean, would you believe it if you hadn’t been there?”
Oscar considered that for a moment, rolling his head side to side before saying.
“No, probably not,” he waved a hand, grasping at something, “It’s just, people are going to go looking for where we found the loot. And we barely made it out of there alive.”
He had a point. Kay had known their haul would be valuable, but she’d underestimated just how valuable. She’d almost refused to accept that their final total was real at first. It had been a long time since numbers that large had meant good things and her brain had needed time to adjust. A process that had involved much weeping and hugs all around, a fact she suspected King would be a while forgiving her over.
Meanwhile, the story had already begun spinning its way through Bright Hope. The biggest haul in years they were calling it, the biggest haul ever by some reckonings. Already people were showing up to offer their congratulations. And to pry for information with varying degrees of subtlety. Dredgers through and through.
“Fair,” Kay said. “But it’s not like anyone’s going to know where we were. So far as the records are concerned, we were all nice and safe inside the line all day.”
“So, what? Nothing but a lucky break for us so far as they’re concerned?”
Kay nodded. “That’s all it has to be isn’t it?”
“…fair enough,” Oscar conceded, popping the top on his beer.
The two of them briefly settled into their food. It was a hearty meal of vegetables, rice, and chicken, lathered in a truly wondrous array of spices. She’d had it dozens of times before but somehow the fact that Kay had purchased all the ingredients herself that made it so much more delicious.
“So, what are you going to do now?”
Kay looked up at Oscar with a curious expression.
“How do you mean?”
Oscar shrugged. “Just wondering what you’re going to do now that you don’t have any debts to pay. What are you going to do?
Kay sat back in her chair, blowing out a breath through her nose while she stared off into the middle distance. He’d cut straight to the heart of things with that one Her debts were gone and for the first time she had the freedom of not ‘had to’ but ‘want to’. She could do anything she wanted to.
What did she want to do?
“You don’t have to tell me,” Oscar said when Kay didn’t answer.
Kay flicked her eyes back to Oscar, flashing him the most genuine smile she had ever given in her life.
“What I’m going to do is eat this food, have some beers, and spend the evening hanging out with my oldest friend.”
Kay took up her drink and held it towards Oscar in a toast. “Then I’m going to go to bed and sleep in. Until noon. Of the next day. Then I’ll figure out the rest after that.”
Oscar chuckled, taking up his own beer to answer the toast.
“Sounds like a plan to me.”
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